- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It was at a run-of-the-mill clinic inside the old armory on campus where Sasho Cirovski first spied Rodney Wallace earlier this decade.

The Maryland coach noticed the gangly 13-year-old with an effective left foot and intuited Wallace would be worth tracking for some time. Soon Cirovski came to know even more about Wallace, notably his voracious competitiveness.

The same is true of D.C. United, which took Wallace with the sixth pick in January’s MLS SuperDraft and immediately plugged the former Terrapins player into a spot on the left flank. Wallace has played all but 17 minutes in 10 league games for United, which hosts New York in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday at RFK Stadium.

“He doesn’t play like a rookie,” said midfielder Chris Pontius, who was taken a selection after Wallace in the draft. “That’s the main thing. He expects a lot out of himself, and when he’s not delivering on that day, he comes home frustrated. He’s a very competitive-natured guy. His work rate and his competitiveness have been just awesome.”

The approach stems from an early age. Wallace lived in Costa Rica until age 9, when work brought his parents to the D.C. area. But he was already instilled with a disdain for losing, even in loosely organized games when there was little on the line.

Those early experiences also solidified his choice for a preferred sport, even after he moved.

“It’s a big feeling for soccer there,” Wallace said. “Everyone’s a fanatic. You can wake up in the morning on a Sunday, you wake up anticipating watching your team play. You could hear TVs going everywhere. It was cool. There’s just a bit of a swagger because soccer is so big and everyone is so into it that it gets you excited.”

His zeal helped him thrive at Maryland, which collected a national title last fall. In many ways, it was a perfect fit - particularly with regard to the professional manner in which Cirovski runs his program.

The Maryland coach’s intense approach reflects a determined preference for an up-tempo style. And when Wallace arrived from the Bullis School in Potomac, Cirovski soon found the 5-foot-11, 155-pounder was ideal for the Terps.

“He was like an Energizer Bunny,” Cirovski said. “Just wind him up and let him go. He was all over the place.”

He eventually settled in at left back, a position crucial to Cirovski’s brand of attacking soccer and well-suited to Wallace’s talents. As a sophomore, he had three goals and three assists. More importantly, Maryland won its final 16 games to collect its second national title in four seasons.

He has played midfield for United in his first professional season, though it isn’t difficult to envision him moving to the back line before long.

“I think that’s where I see myself striving,” Wallace said. “It’s just getting involved in the game as an attacker from a different side of things and also staying connected with the defense. I feel it makes the opposing team that much more vulnerable if you’re constantly pressing them and creating plays.”

For now, he’ll simply be a crucial cog for United (3-1-6), which shares the Eastern Conference lead with Chicago a third of the way through the season. Wallace instantly helped, assisting on a goal in the season-opener against Los Angeles.

A month later, he scored his first career goal against New York, then added another goal May 6 in a draw at Kansas City. He’s one of three players to start each game for United, and only defender Bryan Namoff has played more minutes.

“When you look at training sessions, whether it’s five-vs.-two to keepaway, he’s always on a winning team,” United coach Tom Soehn said. “That helped him adjust quickest to the speed of play.”

Wallace’s omnipresent competitiveness figures to ensure he’ll continue to grow. He and Pontius already make up United’s most effective rookie tandem in several years, infusing a veteran team with high-energy options prepared to contribute immediately.

And at age 20, Wallace could be a fixture in American soccer for some time.

“I can see him as a left back for the U.S. national team,” Cirovski said. “That’s what I think he can do. As he matures in his game and improves, he could be a very important player down the line.”

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